Written by: Jenny Smith
Is your child showing signs of aggression or becoming violent? Aggression is on the same spectrum as anger and assertiveness, both of which are important qualities for a child to develop in order to stand up for themselves and clearly express their needs.
However if these behaviours tip into what is deemed as aggressive this can become problematic. There are increasing concerns about the level of aggression and violence amongst young people with statistics showing that it is much more common these days for young people to either carry or be threatened by a weapon. With this in mind it’s important to understand and recognise symptoms of aggression and know what you can do to support your child to express anger healthily rather than dangerously.
Anger in it’s pure and healthy form is simply a communication that says something is not ok. It communicates boundaries and a persons sense of right and wrong. Aggression on the other hand can be manipulative, threatening, blaming, vengful and violent and if left unchecked can develop into a serious problem for your child. So what are the sorts of things that can trigger anger that could over time develop into aggression? Common scenarios include being ridiculed, laughed at or shamed; not being listened to when upset or anxious; being overly controlled by another; feeling excluded either at home or school or in peer group; feeling let down by being promised something that then doesn’t happen. Situations like these can result in a child feeling unsafe, un-valued, unloved all of which feel too painful hence the need to strike out.
People express anger in very different ways so it’s important that you know your childs relationship to it well enough to spot the signs early on. The more outward expressions of it are easier to spot such as being destructive with toys or belongings, using their bodies forcefully to stamp or hit things, speaking or shouting angrily, refusing to share things or engage with friends.
The other approach to anger can be harder to notice as it is designed to be hidden. This is where a child becomes contracted in their behaviours, their bodies and their communication, so they may withdraw, go silent, stop eye contact, their voice may sound tight or heavy and you may sense a ‘depressed’ feel around them. It can be harder to help a child like this to acknowledge that they are angry because they may be hiding it from themselves.
How you react
Once you become aware of how your child expresses anger and what the possible triggers may be it’s crucial to be very mindful of your own reactions to their anger and what your own relationship to anger is. If your child sees you hitting out, blaming or threatening it is a strong message to them that this is acceptable behaviour, gone are the days, thankfully, when parents get away with saying ‘do what I say not what I do’. If you become aware that you handle anger in ways that are not as healthy as you would like have a look at this Mind guide for some helpful ideas – http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_97.htm
Talk about it
Things that you can do that can make a difference to how anger is expressed by your children include making some time to talk about anger away from any inflammatory situation. Talk about what things make you angry and ask them about their anger, share any techniques that you have like taking a breath or counting to ten that help you keep control and ask them what would work for them.
See if you can come up with a suggestion of a way that they can really express their anger when they need to without getting into trouble, for instance having a punch bag hanging in the hall or buying them a plastic baseball bat and letting them hit their pillows to release pent up frustration.This will give them a really healthy message that there is nothing essentially wrong with their anger it is just something that needs an appropriate outlet.
Praise and boundaries
Make sure you prioritise giving them affection, especially at key times such as a new sibling being born or if there are other significant changes in the family and praise and reward behaviour that you want to encourage. Have clear boundaries around computer and television time especially for programmes that contain violence, remember the media is like food for children, everything that gets taken in has to be processed in some way.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes as much as possible and think about the impact of your communication and whether there are things that you could do which will minimise frustration such as giving them warning times before telling them to go to bed.¬†Most importantly, be gentle with yourself, remember that all parents have to find their way with their children getting angry and sometimes the best learning comes from seeming to make a mistake.